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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Wisdom of the Students

The Wisdom of the Students
M. Bakri Musa

In a remarkable display of professorial prowess, University of Malaya Vice-Chancellor Ghauth Jasmon recently engaged his students in a two-hour dialogue on what it would take to make their university great. With humility, pedagogical skills, and great stage presence, he enthralled his audience while imparting an important message. They in turn were not at all shy in telling him the challenges they faced. It was truly a dialogue, not the usual one-way pedantic pronouncements.

Those students had a clear message not only for their Vice-Chancellor but also the country’s leaders and policy makers: Listen to us!

The session was even more remarkable as it was held after lunch, typically siesta time in the tropics. Anyone who has faced a classroom of students at that time of day knows how difficult it is to get their attention. Yet there they were – professor and students – intellectually engaging each other, interspersed with frequent cheers and laughter.

The Vice-Chancellor listed the five criteria of an elite university, as judged by the rating bodies. They are, in order of importance, the academic reputation of its faculty (40 percent); the related faculty citations (20); student-faculty ratio (20); employers’ assessment of its graduates (10); and the institution’s internationalism as reflected by the number of foreign students (5) and faculty members(5).

For parents and students however, the fourth factor – employers’ assessment – is for practical reasons the most important. Thus Ghauth focused on that. To employers, local graduates are deficient in such important areas as English proficiency, critical thinking, and problem solving. He emphasized the lack of English fluency.

The first three major criteria, comprising 80 percent of the total, are beyond the students’ control. Those are the responsibility of the university, specifically Dr. Ghauth. Students’ contribution would be limited, as the Vice-Chancellor humorously suggested, to existing foreign students encouraging their friends and family members to enroll at UM, and that would influence only five percent of the total assessment.

In a Kennedyesque twist, Dr. Ghauth asked his students what they could do for their university to make it great. Specifically he asked them for ways on improving their English proficiency if for no other reason than to make them acceptable to local employers.

The students’ responses were most illuminating. To be sure, most were the usual and predictable, “Use English more frequently,” or “Befriend more foreign students.” One student stood out for the frankness of his opinion and sharpness of his observation. He also had a deft sense of humor, outclassing the Vice-Chancellor’s. He introduced himself as “Azlé from Kelaté” (Azlan from Kelantan) in that distinctively Malaysian east coast accent. That brought the house down.

Azlan freely admitted to his mediocre English and bravely committed to improving it to “C-grade” over the semester. Amidst the ensuing laughter, many missed his sharp observation, made difficult by his frequent resorting to Malay. In Malay he articulated his problems eloquently.

He related how his teachers back in Kelantan had to resort to using Malay when teaching English! The atmosphere was no better on campus. His friends and classmates would for example, mock and berate him whenever he tried to speak in English. Obviously opportunities for him, and others like him, to learn and practice his English were as limited on campus as they were back in his Kelantan village. That was his crucial message.

As indicated, Azlan could not escape the irritating and jarring Malaysian habit of mixing Malay and English at will. I can readily excuse him because of his admitted lack of English fluency; inexcusable however, were Dr. Ghauth and the other supposedly English-proficient students.

“Soft” and “Hard” Obstacles To Achieving English Fluency

I would have stated Dr. Ghauth’s central question differently: How could the university enhance the English proficiency of its students? A good start would be to follow up on Azlan’s insights.

What Azlan had related are the “soft” obstacles to achieving greater English fluency among Malay students, the subtle cultural and peer pressures. The mindset that dictates learning English is tantamount to hating your own language is part of this “soft” problem. It is a formidable obstacle precisely because it is so amorphous; you cannot easily put your hands around it.

Then there are the “hard” obstacles, like the lack of competent teachers or our students not taking the subject seriously. Ironically, because they are concrete barriers we can readily get a handle on them and then come up with workable solutions.

Take the obvious, the poor teaching of English in our schools and the lack of competent teachers especially in rural areas where the need is greatest. To train these teachers the university must have a strong Department of English. Yet UM’s department has only 11 faculty members and three tutors to serve a campus of 25,000 students. To its credit however, nine of its members have doctorates, a higher percentage than the university as a whole.

The department’s size is not consonant with the great needs of the university and country. Considering that it was one of the first if not founding departments, its lack of growth must have been deliberate. That was short sighted and must be quickly rectified.

The university must expand that department and provide non-credit courses and language labs so its Azlans can have a place to learn and practice their English. Emulate many American campuses including elite ones like Harvard that have similar facilities to improve the math and writing skills of their students.

Dr. Gauth should go further and persuade his fellow Vice-Chancellors to impress upon our policymakers on the importance of teaching English in our schools and universities. They should not remain silent in the face of such regressive steps as the discontinuing of teaching of science and mathematics in English.

As academic leaders these Vice-Chancellors could also mandate a pass in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET). That single move will make our students take English seriously. There will be severe opposition from some students and Malay language nationalists, part of the soft obstacle I alluded to earlier. Thus to soften the impact, I would add this proviso: If a student is otherwise qualified except for his MUET score, then he would be given a year to remedy the deficit before enrolling.

If these academic leaders are really assertive and truly believe on the importance of English for their students, as they frequently profess, they would go further and make English mandatory for all freshmen. Have a placement test so students could be assigned to the appropriate class. Again this is common practice on many American campuses.

Dr. Ghauth could also require all students write no fewer than 30 extended essays (term papers) during their undergraduate years. Again, this is the norm at good American universities. I would also have a similar requirement for essays in Malay (though far fewer in number) for international students. It would be a great shame and make a mockery of their attending a Malaysian university if they were unable to read or write in our national language.

Once we have successfully overcome the “hard” obstacles, the soft barriers will automatically disintegrate like a mud wall in a downpour.

This emphasis on English, though well placed, should not distract us from the other problems facing our students. English proficiency is no panacea; otherwise those Indian and Filipino graduates would be competitive.

Deficiencies in critical thinking and problem solving are not English language dependent, as attested by Azlan’s performance. Instead they are the consequence of our pedagogical philosophy as well as our approach to teaching and testing. Far too often what goes on in our schools and universities is not education but indoctrination. Education in Malaysia is, to borrow Noam Chomsky’s phrase, “a system of imposed ignorance … a system of indoctrination.”

Consider how we test our students; it is nothing more than an exercise in regurgitation. If we design our questions so students could have “open book” examinations, then we are truly evaluating critical thinking and problem solving abilities instead of talent for regurgitation. Professor Ghauth had demonstrated a teaching style that engages students and make the intellectual traffic flows both ways.

I applaud the university personnel for doing a professional job in videotaping the session and then posting it on Youtube. I hope Dr. Ghauth will have other similar sessions with his faculty, the public, and policymakers to address the first three criteria on making the university great.

Anticipating that, I offer my suggestions. One, strive to have within five years all faculty members with terminal qualifications. I would later elevate that by requiring new recruits to have substantive post-doctoral experience. Two, I would fund faculty members so they could present papers at international meetings. That would encourage them to submit their papers to international bodies. Three, grant all faculty members automatic research funding equal to their annual salaries, and spread over three years. Four, I would supply each faculty member with a free laptops and unlimited WiFi access so they could download lectures by leading scholars elsewhere for presentation to the students, as well as access to professional journals. Many of those publications offer free access to academics from the Third World. That alone would pay for the computers, by sparing the library from having to subscribe to those expensive journals. Five, I would treat our academics with great respect beginning with getting rid of that idiotic Akujanji pledge.

If our policymakers think that my suggestions are expensive, think how much more it would be to have our universities remain in the academic cellar and continue producing mediocre products! That would be the greatest disservice to the students, as well as to the country.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice piece of writing and thinking. I would not condemned the students' command of English today being not as good as yours and mine. Mind you, we learned every subject in English for 14 years before entering a university. As the present students are the product of a Malay medium system, I would not expect much English from them. I sympathize with them rather than condemning and belittling them for their bad English. Also the English Department does not teach English in UM.

5:27 AM  

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